Possessing marijuana and smoking it in the privacy of one’s home would no longer be criminal offenses in the nation’s capital under a bill passed Tuesday by the D.C. Council, putting the District at the forefront of a simmering national debate over decriminalization.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) intends to sign the bill, which would partially decriminalize cannabis by imposing civil fines rather than jail time for most offenses. The District joins 17 states that have taken similar action but doesn’t go as far as Colorado or Washington state, where voters have legalized the sale and taxation of marijuana. A bill to decriminalize marijuana use is pending in the Maryland General Assembly, along with a bill to legalize the drug.
The District also stopped short of legalizing public smoking — a decision influenced by the input of police officials, parents and others who remain unconvinced that full decriminalization is a good step for the city.
The District’s unique rules of governance require the bill to sit before a congressional panel for 60 days before it becomes law, but several advocates said they don’t expect federal lawmakers to intervene. More broadly, advocates celebrated the 10 to 1 council vote as the latest reflection of growing mainstream support for recreational marijuana use. Their cheers were muted only by concerns that the council didn’t go far enough to reverse the city’s history of disproportionately arresting African Americans on drug charges.
“D.C. will serve as a model for jurisdictions where, for one reason or another, full taxation and legalization is not yet possible,” said Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance. The landmark vote, he said, will leapfrog the District ahead of even California and Massachusetts, which have passed more legally complicated decriminalization measures in recent years.
By playing out in the nation’s capital, the drama highlights the persistent conflict that decriminalization creates with federal law. It remains unclear how overlapping local and federal jurisdictions will affect enforcement, particularly in national parks. Someone could be arrested under federal law, for instance, for possession on the Mall.
Elsewhere in the city, the penalty for possession of up to an ounce would drop to a fine of $25 — smaller than in any state except Alaska. Consumption in private residences would draw the same fine, unless in public housing, which is governed by federal law. The bill would equate smoking marijuana in public to toting an open can of beer; a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of $500 and up to six months in jail, down from a potential $1,000 fine and one-year jail sentence.
Across the country, decriminalization efforts have been promoted primarily as an expansion of civil liberties meant to frame recreational use as a personal choice with few societal consequences and little need for government oversight.
But in the District, the movement has been framed as a civil rights issue, particularly in the past year, after a series of reports detailed greater racial disparity in drug arrests here than in most major U.S. cities.
“In D.C., there are more than 5,000 arrests per year for marijuana; 90 percent are African American,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the lead sponsor of the bill. “One drug charge can change a life forever. Our action . . . does not repeal all negative impacts caused by criminalization of marijuana, but it moves us in the right direction.”